Welcome to the the 11th course lecture for COM/SOC 375: the Social Networks class of the University of Maine at Augusta. Before you started this course and you heard the phrase “social network,” did your mind jump to thoughts of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Pinterest? Social networks exist offline, to be sure, but in a very short amount of time a very large number of people have become users of online social networks. These networks track your behavior patterns; how can you in turn learn to track patterns of the networks you use? Follow the path set out in this week’s and next week’s work and you’ll be on your way.
In this lecture, we’ll consider the following subjects in a combination of text, audio, images and video (be sure to review them all):
- What is Social Media? How did online networks get started?
- Professional Social Media and the Boundary between Communication and Commodification
- Redeeming Relations: Should You Sell Your Friends?
To prepare for this lecture you should first read “Do Not Sell Your Friends,” Chapter 7 in Douglas Rushkoff’s book Program Or Be Programmed. This reading is available to officially registered students on Blackboard. Log on this course’s Blackboard page and look for the “Readings” link on the left-hand side of the main page to find the excerpt of Rushkoff.
What is Social Media? How did Social Media Get Started?
Before the advent of modern communications technologies, traditional interpersonal interaction involved reciprocal (back-and forth) and face-to-face discussion. Because that interaction was direct, we refer to it as “unmediated.” In contrast, traditional forms of mass media are indirect, mediated, non-reciprocal. Mass media such as books, radio, television and film operate in a unidirectional sense: creators share work with an audience that is not expected to respond. Mass media also prevents direct content between a broadcaster and his or her audience; there is almost always a screen, a speaker or a page between them. Social media offers a different combination of features than either in-person contact or mass media. In forms such as blogs, wikis, discussion boards, Facebook and Twitter, social media incorporates two-way interaction and group formation, supported by digital technology.
We tend to think that social networks on social media are fairly new, a creature of the last decade or so. Actually, however, social media stretches much further back in history. Even computer-based social media stretch back more than a generation, as the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones demonstrates in his podcast-documentary series “The Secret History of Social Networking.” As part of this lecture, don’t just listen to me; listen to each one of Cellan-Jones’ three-episode series (a total of about about an hour and a half):
The following video was shot in the fall of 2012, and so the trends it describes are a bit dated. Nevertheless, the overall patterns remain relevant for this fall 2017 course. In the video, we start off by considering the original, literal “on line” form of social media, along with the offline inspiration for Pinterest. To be “on line” now means something rather different than it did even a decade ago in technological terms, but our patterns of human behavior remain strikingly similar despite those changes.
Professional Social Media and the Boundary between Communication and Commodification
In the following video, I interview Shannon Kinney, the founder and General Manager of the Maine social media firm Dream Local Digital. The subject: the management of person-to-person and person-to-brand social relations online for instrumental purposes. After a consideration of the various ways that a social media firm can help businesspeople tell a story successfully, Kinney discusses the thorny question of boundaries between personal relations and profitable interactions:
In Program or Be Programmed, Douglas Rushkoff declares that in social media “the content is not the message, the contact is.” But many businesses and organizations have a strong desire to spread content through contact. As you watch this interview with Tracy O’Clair of Central Maine networking firm TOC Media, consider whether the use of social media for the accomplishment of business goals should from the use of social media for the maintenance of emotional ties. If communication can be commodified, why not blur the line between the two?
Redeeming Relations: Should You Sell Your Friends?
“Friendships, both digital and incarnate, do create value. But this doesn’t mean the people in our lives can be understood as commodities to be collected and counted.” — Douglas Rushkoff, Program or Be Programmed.
Dream Local helps corporations, small businesses and non-profits to be more responsive and effective communicators, with the idea that a relationship established will lead to purchases or further recommendations between friends down the line. But there is a different model of social media marketing pursued by a different class of agencies. As papers by Bhatt and Guo describe, the combination of messages from a seller and endorsements by friends can significantly increase the likelihood of a sale.
This finding isn’t merely academic. The recommendation of these and similar recent studies has been implemented by social media giant Facebook. If you are a Facebook user, did you notice a new set of advertisements appearing last year, advertisements that tell you a Facebook friend of yours “likes” WalMart or Amazon.com or McDonald’s or some other corporate brand? These advertisements were once called “Sponsored Stories,” and businesses were purchasing them left and right. When you “like” a business, the arrangement doesn’t make businesses wait for you to independently tell your friends how and why you like that business. When businesses pay for the “Sponsored Stories” service, Facebook tells your friends what businesses you like on the businesses’ behalf.
According to Devon Glenn of Social Media Times and Craig Robinson of Media Funnel, Facebook users are significantly more likely to click on these advertisements featuring your name in endorsement than they are to click on the old-style advertisements that didn’t have your name associated with them. Rushkoff’s protest aside, users of Facebook have indeed become “commodities to be collected and counted.” Mashable reported that as of April 2014, Facebook’s Sponsored Stories program was shut down — but not because the service didn’t work. To the contrary, the feature would be included from that point forward as a part of all paid advertising on Facebook. Your likes are now sold as a matter of course.
With the conversion of social connections into cash money (popularly called “monetization” in marketing circles), why should you be left out? What if a corporation could buy your recommendation of a product? Would it want to buy a recommendation from you? You’ve already seen a video from Statusboom, a start-up company that has recently gone belly-up but that built its profit model off of rewarding “influencers” (remember Bhatt) who agree to promote products and services to their Facebook friends and Twitter followers:
But Statusboom is not alone. Although the similar service Klout has recently hidden the algorithm to determine what sort of people it considers to be “influencers,” a glimpse at an archived presentation by Klout leaders shows that Klout rewards social media users with modified measures of high degree…
and eigenvector centrality, which is like degree but essentially involves the number of connections to particularly popular people …
… with “perks: rewards given to you from brands in recognition of your influence.”
Similar monetary and non-monetary rewards are offered by BubblesOut, Sponsored Reviews, PayPerPost and Social Influencers to help create waves of activated “influencers,” friends willing to tell friends they like a product if they’re compensated for it.
In this week’s in-lecture discussion, I’d like you to participate in the Padlet below (or the comments section at the end of this lecture if Padlet won’t work for you). In your participation, consider how social media connections are being measured and managed to maximize sales. What role do you think businesses and people should play when interacting via social media? What interactions do you consider to be appropriate or inappropriate? Is Rushkoff right on target or behind the times? Share your thoughts, justify those thoughts — and respond thoughtfully to the contributions of others!
References in Videos
Cellan-Jones, Rory. 2011. “Secret History of Social Networking.” Podcast available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00y5jgf/episodes/player.
Hansen, Derek L., Ben Shneiderman and Marc A. Smith. 2011. Analyzing Social Media Networks with NodeXL. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann.
Pew Internet & American Life Project. 2016. “Usage Over Time Data.” Excel spreadsheet available at http://pewinternet.org/Trend-Data-(Adults)/Usage-Over-Time.aspx